The warm climate, boundless fields of fertile soil, long growing seasons, and numerous waterways provided favorable conditions for farming plantations in the South (Foster). The richness of the South depended on the productivity of the plantations (Katz 3-5). With the invention of the cotton gin, expansion of the country occurred. This called for the spread of slavery (Foster).
Slaves, owned by one in four families, were controlled from birth to death by their white owners. Black men, women, and children toiled in the fields and houses under horrible conditions (Katz 3-5). The slave system attempted to destroy black family structure and take away human dignity (Starobin 101). Slaves led a hard life on the Southern plantations.
Most slaves were brought from Africa, either kidnapped or sold by their tribes to slave catchers for violating a tribal command. Some were even traded for tobacco, sugar, and other useful products (Cowan and Maguire 5:18). Those not killed or lucky enough to escape the slave-catching raids were chained together (Foster). The slaves had no understanding of what was happening to them. They were from different tribes and of different speaking languages. Most captured blacks had never seen the white skinned foreigners who came on long, strange boats to journey them across the ocean. They would never see their families or native lands again. These unfortunate people
were shackled and crammed tightly into the holds of ships for weeks. Some refused to eat and others committed suicide by jumping overboard (Foster).
When the ships reached American ports, slaves were unloaded into pens to be sold at auctions to the highest bidder. One high-priced slave compared auction prices with another, saying, “You wouldn’t fetch ‘bout fifty dollas, but I’m wuth a thousand” (qtd. in Foster). At the auctions, potential buyers would examine the captives’ muscles and teeth. Men’s and women’s bodies were exposed to look for lash marks. No marks on a body meant that he or she was an obedient person. The slaves were required to dance or jump around to prove their limberness. Young, fair-skinned muttaloes, barely clothed and ready to be sold to brothel owners, were kept in private rooms (Foster).
It was profitable to teach the slaves skills so that during the crop off-season they could be hired out to work. Although they were not being paid, some were doing more skilled work than poor whites were. The better behaved slaves were allowed to be carpenters, masons, bricklayers, or iron workers. The construction of bridges, streets, canals, railroad lines, public buildings, and private homes was made possible by using slave labor (Cowan and Maguire 5:44).
Slaves had no rights. This was done to keep them from revolting against their masters or attaining too much power (Katz 3-5). They were not allowed to communicate with each other or have meetings of any sort. To leave the plantation, a worker was required to have a pass signed by the master and overseer. Slaves could not own property, although some masters authorized it. Knives, guns, or any kind of weapon was not allowed. Forced separation of family members was a constant, dreadful threat (Foster). “It was de saddes’ thing dat ever happen to me,” one slave recalls of the sale of her sister, whom she never saw again (qtd. in Foster). Blacks received harsher criminal sentencing than whites, regardless of the crime (Cowan and Maguire 5:17). Marriage between slaves was not legally recognized, but owners encouraged it because a more stable environment was created. Married couples with children were less likely to attempt escape. Unfortunately, there usually was not a suitable mate choice among the slaves, so most remained single (Starobin 7).
Rebel slaves would recruit Indians, poor whites, and anti-slavery persons to attack all white men, women, and children (Starobin 123-26). These uprisings occurred with at least one major revolt per generation (Starobin 98). Most rebellions were led by skilled artisans and industrial workers. The slaves depended on midnight surprise attacks and support from many (Starobin 124). They would set fire to buildings; while the whites were extinguishing the flames, angry slaves would assault them from behind (Starobin 123-26). Owners were forced to “sleep with one eye open” in case the large masses of slaves decided to uprise (qtd. in Foster).
On a much smaller scale, slaves expressed their hate by refusing their duties, performing slow and sloppy work, stealing goods, fighting with overseers, sabotaging machinery and tools, and resisting the white culture forced upon them (Starobin 98-99). Some attempted to run away. They sought refuge in mountains and swamps. Professional slave catchers used bloodhound dogs to track down runaways. Sometimes handbills with the description of the slave were printed and distributed through several communities. In some cases, after a few days or weeks in the wilderness, a slave would give up hope and return to his master. Very few runaways escaped to freedom. Captured slaves would be beaten, burned, or killed as an example to other slaves (Foster). Whipping was the most commonly used form of punishment for disorderly slaves (David et al. 63-68).
Rewards were handed out to the fastest and most productive cotton pickers. One might receive extra food rations or a new set of clothing. Some earned assignment to tasks of choice. Permission to visit a neighboring plantation might be given or a trip to town might be planned. Some overseers gave out small amounts of money to buy tobacco, jewelry, or trinkets from peddlers (David et al. 69-70). Overwork pay was another favorable prize, but few slaveowners used this method (Starobin 7).
A slave was considered lucky if he got to be a house servant. House servants were considered the “aristocrats of slavery” (qtd. in Ploski and Williams 1438). They were the best behaved and most submissive, occasionally even the mixed offspring of the master himself. The house servants were raised in belief that they were superior to other slaves in status and importance (Starobin 63). Intimate friendships often formed between master and messenger (Ploski and Williams 1438). Young black boys and girls were sometimes adopted into the family (Katz 4-5).
House slaves were allowed to practice trades such as tailoring and masonry. Some were permitted to study music and teach. Duties of the housekeeper were managing the house, caring for the children, and driving the buggy; they basically catered to the master’s requests (Ploski and Williams 1438). A slaveowner might enlist the help of his servant to spy on overseers and tattle on other slaves (Starobin 63). Most house slaves lived in the same house as the master (Ploski and Williams 1438).
The majority of house servants were women; therefore, they were open and vulnerable to sexual abuse. They were unsafe from lusty masters and overseers, even
fellow slave men, who ignored state laws against rape. Powerless women were forced into prostitution. The slave woman suffered most by the white “fiends who bear the shape of men.” (qtd. in Foster). Fortunately this seldomly occurred (Foster). Sometimes a willing relationship between master and slave evolved (Ploski and Williams 1438).
Field hands met a much harsher fate. “Unrelieved horror and vicious cruelty” described the day-to-day life of a field hand (qtd. in Katz 3). They were in charge of sowing, reaping, and planting commercial crops like cotton and tobacco under the watchful eye of unmerciful overseers (Ploski and Williams 1437). They worked in all weather conditions from sunup to sundown every day. Slaves were rarely used to grow grains such as wheat, rye, and barley because they were considered unsuitable to handle it (Katz 4-5). Field laborers cared for equipment and kept gardens in shape (Ploski and Williams 1437). When the need for soldiers arose during war, some blacks enlisted into the militia, either willingly or by force from the master (Cowan and Maguire 5: 17).
Masters kept food, clothing, and shelter at bare minimum to reduce costs (Starobin 7). Often workers were given a small shack with no windows, a bare dirt floor, and a leaky roof. Several families might live in one crowded room. They were allowed corn or rice, maybe a bucket a week, and rarely received meat as a food staple. The field slaves were very malnourished. The slaves were given one set of clothing to wear for years, and most did not have shoes (Ploski and Williams 1439). As a result of the poor living conditions, disease and death rates were kept high (Starobin 7). Most adult slaves were worked to death in eight to ten years (Ploski and Williams 1437). Slavery was a terrible institution. It took people’s lives and tore them apart. Many black people suffered for decades. Slaves were exposed to prejudice and inhuman
treatment. They lived in unthinkable conditions, stripped of their dignity and rights as human beings. Slavery changed the path of history forever.
Cowan, Tom, and Jack Maguire. Timelines in American History. New York: Perigee Books, 1994.
David, Paul, et al. Reckoning with Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Foster, Stephen T. The Civil War Collection. New York: New Viewpoints, 1974.
Katz, William Loren, ed. Slavery to Civil War. Vol 2. New York: Franklin Watts, 1974.
Ploski, Harry A., and James Williams. Reference Library of Black America. Vol 5. New York: Gale Research, 1990.
Starobin, Robert S., Blacks in Bondage. New York: New Viewpoints, 1974.
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